Don’t Trust Scientists? Then Help Collect the Data


In 2015 I was on the verge of publishing my first scientific journal article. The culmination of hundreds of hours spent filming defensive behavior in snakes seemed to be paying off in a big way: an exciting new conclusion about how the rattlesnake's namesake rattle evolved. But there was a problem.

While almost every data point I collected about viper behavior supported our hypothesis—that snakes more closely related to rattlesnakes shake their tails more quickly—one critical species bucked the trend: the cottonmouth. These large venomous snakes from the Southeastern U.S. shook their tails a measly 10 or 15 times per second—half as quickly as most other rattlesnake cousins.

Staring at my computer screen after analyzing the videos, I realized two things. One, cottonmouths were going to complicate an otherwise straightforward story that would reduce the strength of my conclusions, meaning I might not get my paper published in a top-tier journal. And two, since I was the only person in my lab analyzing this data, it was completely within my power to fudge the numbers.

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